For obvious reasons, mesothelioma is stressful. Whether you are a patient or a caregiver, it is important to have a variety of ways to manage stress. One of the most versatile and effective ways to reduce our experience of stress is by practicing relaxation techniques.
In order to better appreciate how relaxation techniques work, it is useful to understand the “stress response” that we all have. All animals are equipped with the fight or flight response, which is activated when we feel threatened. Running from a charging bear or the sensing the possibility of your job are examples that could trigger the response.
The fight/flight response is an adaptive biological reaction that enables us to run away or fight for our life in a crisis. Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for giving us this strength and speed when we need it most.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Systems
When we feel threatened, our sympathetic nervous system:
- Increases heart rate and breathing rate.
- Slows digestion.
- Increases blood pressure.
- Sends nutrients to muscle groups.
- Inhibits tear and salivary gland secretions.
- Inhibits our immune function.
- Dilates the pupils.
- Relaxes the bladder.
So what happens when we no longer feel threatened? Our parasympathetic nervous system is activated and helps calm us down. The sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator in the stress response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake.
The parasympathetic nervous system works by:
- Increasing digestion.
- Increasing our immune system.
- Increasing circulation to our internal organs.
- Decreasing our heart rate and blood pressure.
- Decreasing our body temperature.
Because a diagnosis of mesothelioma is a serious threat to our well-being (or our loved one’s well-being), we feel stressed. There are usually measurable increases in stress hormones among cancer patients.
Relaxation techniques are designed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. There are many physical and emotional benefits of relaxation:
- Decreased heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Better sleep
- Improved concentration
- Lower stress
Types of Relaxation
There are many different types of relaxation. Some of the most common types are diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, muscle relaxation and guided imagery.
- Diaphragmatic breathing is the backbone of most other relaxation techniques. It is a simple yet effective way of breathing that produces a quick relaxation response. Singers, musicians, actors and public speakers all use this type of breathing to help them breathe properly and stay relaxed during a performance or speech. This kind of breathing is also known as belly breathing and is done by relaxing our abdominal muscles and drawing our breath toward the bottom of our lungs.
- With meditation, the goal is to achieve a state of nothingness. The mind is quieted through focus and concentration on a single point such as a mantra or the breath. Many people enjoy a sense of relaxation after meditation.
- Muscle relaxation helps relieve stress related to muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is an active form of relaxation where you tense and relax different muscle groups throughout the body. Another type of muscle relaxation is called passive muscle relaxation and doesn’t incorporate tensing and relaxing muscles. By simply noticing and focusing on how our muscles feel and visualizing them relaxing, many people can achieve the feeling of muscle relaxation. Both types of muscle relaxation are useful when people experience muscle tightness and agitation when they are stressed.
- For those people who can’t switch off their worrying, guided imagery may be the best type of relaxation. Guided imagery takes your mind on a trip to a beautiful, peaceful and safe place. There are many relaxation exercises that provide instruction on how to find that peaceful place. When worrying affects one’s sleep or concentration, guided imagery can be very helpful.
Some people need to try a couple of different types of relaxation techniques to find the one that works for them. You can sample different types of relaxation music and exercises online or on iTunes (under New Age/Relaxation Music). Some cancer treatment centers offer their patients, caregivers and the community relaxation classes.
Learning new methods of relaxation and stress relief are valuable tools that help us manage stress in our lives.
This material was shared in the April 9, 2014, mesothelioma online support group.